Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Scandal of the Gospel

The great scandal of the Gospel is that God forgives people like Jeffery Dahmer.

I’ve recently been reading Philip Yancy’s book, What’s So Amazing About Grace? There, Yancy tells the story of Dahmer coming to faith in Christ. Whether Dahmer was sincere, no one can say but God. Yet the truth is, the gates of heaven are flung wide for people exactly like Dahmer.


When I was a child, I always heard there was something scandalous, something offensive about Jesus, but I never figured out exactly what the scandal was. I assumed it lay in how we presented Jesus. If people were meant to find the Gospel scandalous, surely that was because we were meant to be on the offense in witnessing, getting in people’s faces a little, berating them for their sins? A friend of mine, as a child, rode her bike up and down her neighborhood streets, yelling fire and brimstone at the top of her lungs. This, clearly, was the scandal of the Gospel.

No. The way we share Jesus with others may be offensive, but the real scandal is Jesus Himself. Too often, this is not the Jesus we talk about in church. Too often, the Jesus we talk about in church “offends no one at all”, as Michael Card sings in his song “Scandalon.” The Jesus we talk about is busy inviting children onto his lap, feeding the hungry, heading out for a fishing trip with his disciples – all true, but hardly scandalous. The Jesus we don’t talk about is the one hobnobbing with whores and corrupt tax collectors, the one who rescues an adulteress from her just punishment and sends her away, scot-free.

The truth is, the scandal of the Gospel is grace. Do we really believe in grace? Do we really believe in free access to God for anyone – anyone –who comes to him through Christ? We say we do. We name our churches something like “Grace Baptist Church” or “Grace Community Church.” We print the sinner’s prayer at the back of every church bulletin and post it on church websites.

Then someone like Dahmer cashes in on God’s unending grace, and deep inside we are shocked. How could God’s grace possibly stretch far enough to cover someone like Jeffery Dahmer? Deep inside, something whispers to us that we are more worthy of God’s love than Dahmer. After all, he murdered people; we do not. He ate people; we serve juice and animal crackers at children’s church. We take a summer missions trip, we hold back snarky comments about Aunt Ethel at the family reunion, and we vainly imagine that our actions earn us a larger share of God’s love than Dahmer could ever receive.

Yet this tidy little myth of our own goodness is blown to bits when someone like Dahmer is saved. In someone like Dahmer there is absolutely nothing that could merit God’s love, yet God loves him unreservedly. However many animal crackers we serve in children’s church, however kind we are to Aunt Ethel, such love cannot possibly be earned. This is the scandal of the Gospel, that we stand exactly where we have always feared to find ourselves: as sinners, desperately in need of the no-strings-attached grace of God.

Realizing that we are in the same boat as Jeffery Dahmer need not be a downer. On the contrary, to remember how greatly we stand in need of God’s grace is to take the first step towards tasting that grace ourselves.

Humility, according to G.K. Chesterton, is the central virtue of Christianity. Indeed, in the Bible humility marks nearly every person’s journey towards God. Naaman is cured because he lays aside his pride and bathes in the Jordan, David the great king dances before the Lord, heedless and happy in his tightie-whities, and Zaccheus apologizes publically and promises to restore four times what he has stolen.. Whenever people come to God, they come to Him on their knees. Whenever they see God, they see Him best when they are not blinded by the phantasm of their own goodness. Whenever people are blessed by God, they are blessed because they are humble.

When we are humble, C.S. Lewis assures us, “the Mercy will receive us.” I would add that when we are humble, we will finally allow ourselves to receive mercy. Yes, Jeffery Dahmer’s salvation is scandalous. Yet that scandal is our saving grace. In the face of such scandal we are at last able to let go of our collective fantasy that we are somehow worthy of God’s mercy, able to bend our stiffened knees and in humility discover the endless grace of God. 

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